Category Archives: Uncategorized

Carex pansa and other Lawn Substitutes

I lucked out the other day when I was invited on the spur of the moment to visit a garden in Felton. I was at her daughters house to help with some design ideas for the backyard when the offer came that maybe I would like to see how her no mow-no water carex pansa lawn was doing at the end of the summer. Would I? I jumped at the chance.

convolvulus_sabatius
Blue ground morning glory in perennial border

Located only a couple blocks away, Michele Mosher’s garden was a real treat to visit. You can tell in an instant a garden that has been created and nurtured by a plant lover. It was truly a work of art. Each path wound between beds with just the perfect mix of shrubs and perennials. Chocolate cosmos bloomed alongside sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and caught my eye right away. Blue ground morning glory, honey bush, salvia guaranitica starred in some beds. She told me she hasn’t watered the lamb’s ears, phormium, lavender, ceanothus, rosemary and salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ this summer.

carex_pansa_fall-no-water
carex pansa at end of summer- no mow and no water

On the far side of Michele’s carex pansa meadow she grows a border or society garlic and blue fescue grass. She has not watered her meadow at all this year. Although browning in spots now it didn’t look bad at all. She told me that she did mow occasionally while it was becoming established in order make it thicker but prefers the meadow look. Also weed control at first was important but now she does virtually no weeding at all. Michele planted her carex pansa lawn from plugs.

Native turf grasses can work as a play surface for children mowed at two to three inches high. If allowed to grow naturally, the clumpy, meadow-like nature of this type of turf would be a tripping hazard for most play activities.

sedum_autumn_joy
sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and other perennials

Lawns like carex pansa and other no-mow native grasses such as blue grama, California and red fescue and bent grass don’t need constant mowing to stay short. A handfull of trims per year, depending on the site, will suffice. Carex pansa forms a 6-8″ high mat of narrow, dark green leaves that are moderately tolerant of foot traffic and excellent between pavers and stepping stones. Occasional shearing keeps it looking it’s best but can be left alone with no mowing at all. This grass only needs an occasional irrigation to keep it green.
Other meadow grasses to walk on include buffalo grass, catlin sedge, carex texensis, Berkeley sedge and valley meadow sedge. All grow 4-8″ tall and can be either left alone on mowed every so often. They are tough enough for soccer games yet soft enough for bare feet.

If you’ve decided that you don’t need a traditional grass lawn anymore at all, replace it with a sustainable alternative like Michele did to save water and time.

Late Summer Tasks for the Garden

It’s darker in the mornings now with the sunset coming earlier each evening. All that time I thought I’d have back in June to get things accomplished in the garden has vanished in what seems like a wink of an eye. Still the weather these days is perfect for being outside and pecking away at my to do list. There are also some late summer/early fall tasks that need attention.

alstroemeria_variegated
Alstroemeria ‘Rock & Roll’

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like alstroemeria, agapanthus, coreopsis, iris, daylily, yarrow, rudbeckia, calla lily, aster and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart although they don’t always bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves. Start perennial flowers seeds now so that they will be mature enough to bloom next year.

This is the perfect time for transplanting or adding new plants to your garden. Why? Cooler air is kinder to plant foliage and soil temperatures are still warm which creates an excellent environment for new root growth. In the fall many plants and trees, even broadleaf evergreens, are entering a period of dormancy. With no need to allocate resources into foliage, plants are transferring all their energy into roots and storing nutrients for the cool months ahead. By spring, the new roots system should be well established.

Perhaps it’s time to remove or reduce lawn. Replant with more drought tolerant ornamental grasses or perennials.

achillea_pink
Achillea millefolium

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time with an all-purpose organic fertilizer or layer of compost. This advice doesn’t apply to California natives. They like compost only around the roots during the winter while they get ready for their growing season.

Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in the fall. To keep them blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new flower bud to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves.

Plant cool season veggie starts like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, spinach, brussels sprouts, onions and leeks in soil enriched with 4-6″ of compost as summer vegetable crops will have used up much of your soil’s nutrients.You can sow seeds of beets, carrots, radishes, spinach, arugula, mustard and peas directly in the ground.

soil_builder_cover_crop_mix-1600
Soil builder cover crop mix

If you aren’t going to grow vegetables in the garden this fall consider planting a cover crop like crimson clover, fava or bell beans after you’ve harvested your summer vegetables.

Cut back berries vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather. Sometimes you don’t even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling. Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water. Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides.

And whatever you do, enjoy being outside in this beautiful place we call home.

California Natives for Containers

My ambitious plans to augment this garden here in Bonny Doon with California natives and colorful plants to attract birds and wildlife is not turning out exactly as I’d pictured. I thought that I had licked my gopher problem by planting everything in baskets. Not so, now they just come up next to their plant of choice at night and eat whole thing from the top, dragging the rest down into their neat little hole while leaving the root still snug in its basket. Hopefully, some will regrow from the roots.

rhododendron_occidentale3
Western azalea

But I’m not giving up on planting for the birds and bees. I’ve got plans to increase my container garden collection. Gardening in containers is easy. I can control the soil, water and light and the gophers can’t undermine my efforts. There are a lot of California native plants that do well in containers and I’m going to place them where both the birds and I can enjoy them.

For some of my largest containers I’ll choose from natives like Western Azalea, Deer Grass, Chaparral Pea or Giant Chain Fern. Any of the taller growing ceanothus and manzanita would look great too by themselves or combined with smaller growing plants.

mimulus_JellyBean_gold
Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean Gold’

For small to medium containers I can use Conejo Buckwheat, Hummingbird Mint, Penstemon Heterophyllos, Mimulus, Woolly Blue Curls or Coastal Daisy, These combine well with colorful Lewisia, Dog Violets or Wild Strawberry.

I might combine a madrone with a Canyon Gray Coastal Sagebrush – Artemisia californica – which grows about a foot high and will trail over the side of the container adding beautiful gray color to contrast with the rich green of the other leaves. I also like the combination of California Hazelnut, Deer Fern, Redwood Sorrel and Wild Ginger.

Some of the most dramatic containers utilize the concept of combining a thriller, some fillers and spiller or two. Not all my containers will use this formula but I seem to be drawn to those that do. Plants in nature can be quite random in the way they grow together and still be lovely. Containers need a bit more order to dazzle and direct the eye.

Thrillers act as the centerpiece of a container. They are usually big, bold and beautiful. Giant Elk Clover is one such California native that is an attention getter. Chilopsis linearis-Desert Willow is another great subject for containers as it is slow growing and beautiful in leaf and flower. Other architectural natives that will catch your eye as the centerpiece of a container are Hibiscus or Rose Mallow and Pacific Dogwood. The thriller goes in the center of the pot or if your container will be viewed from only one side it goes in the back.

Next come the fillers. They can be foliage or flowering plants but they should complement and not overwhelm your largest plant. Usually they have a mounding shape and I’ll plant several around the thriller. Good fillers include Heuchera Maxima and Western Maidenhair Fern.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
California fuchsia

The last plants I’ll add are the spillers which are small and will soften the edge of the container. Redwood Sorrel, Wild Ginger and Miner’s Lettuce are good choices. California Fuchsia would look spectacular with its red or orange flowers and grey foliage spilling down the side of my container.

The best overall soil mix for natives in containers sharp sand and horticultural pumice added to a good potting soil. Never use perlite or that puffed up pumice because it will float and look terrible. Happy Container Gardening.

Living Fences make Good Neighbors

loropetalum_chinense.1600To quote Robert Frost from his 1914 poem ‘Mending Walls’ , “Good fences make good neighbors”. When I visited eastern Poland a couple of years ago each house and garden was enclosed with a fence of some sort. Some fences were wood, some stone, some ornamental iron and some were plant hedges that divided properties. I thought the living hedges were the most beautiful and neighborly. Whether you need to screen a water tank or noisy road or the neighbor’s second story window there are lots of choices. Plan now to be ready for fall planting season.

There are many kinds of plants that make good living fences. Recently I designed a screen for a narrow yard along a busy street. We didn’t want to enclose the area with dense plants that would take up too much space and not allow her to enjoy a view of the beautiful neighborhood but still she didn’t want every person walking their dog to look into her kitchen window. Some of the plants we chose will display a graceful, weeping habit. Others are wispy and columnar. Still others are compact.

Many people only think of plants that remain evergreen when they need screening. However, if you use one-third deciduous plants to two-thirds broadleaf evergreens they will weave together and you won’t be able to tell where one leaves off and another begins. This makes mature hedges secure borders, especially if you throw a few barberries or other prickly plant into the mix.  You’ll also get seasonal interest with fall color and berries for wildlife.

Pittosporum Silver Sheen, westringia ‘Wynabbie Gem’, leptospermum, nandina, Lily-of-the-Valley shrub and English laurel also make great screens and hedges. What other plants can you use that would be beautiful, productive and practical in all seasons?

Many times a screen may start in the sun but end up in mostly shade. For your sunnier spots why not mix in a few dwarf fruit trees for you to enjoy, ceanothus and Pacific wax myrtle for the birds, barberry for beautiful foliage and fall color, spirea, rockrose, escallonia and quince for their bright flowers and fragrant lilacs for cutting in the spring?  The shadier side can include Oregon grape for fragrant, yellow winter flowers, snowberry for those striking white berries in the fall, oak-leaf hydrangea, viburnum and native mock orange for blossoms in the spring.

Loropetalum chinense or Fringe Flower is a handsome evergreen shrub that comes in two versions: green foliage with white flowers or burgundy foliage with raspberry flower clusters. Flowering is heaviest in the spring but some bloom is likely throughout the year. They thrive in sun with occasional water or part shade  The burgundy form would add color to a woodland garden and they even do well in a container on the patio.   You can prune it to any size but please don’t turn it into a tight ball and ruin it’s shape. Another plus is that it is not attractive to deer.

Variegated Mint Bush is another shrub to consider for a living hedge. Creating pleasing prostanthera_ovalifolia_Variegataplant combinations is a big part of gardening and this one would look great alongside a Fringe Flower of either color. Allow each plant to interweave and grow together. The Mint Bush will grow 4-6 feet tall and 3-5 feet high. The foliage smells very strongly like mint so deer avoid this shrub, too.

To keep down maintenance, mulch around your plants and install drip irrigation. There won’t be any pruning to do if you choose plants that grow to the height you want. Mixed hedges appeal to bees, butterflies and songbirds while also providing flowers, berries and color throughout the year for you to enjoy.

How close should you plant a mixed hedge?  Depending on the mature size of the plant spacing could be from 3-5 feet part If you want a quick, thick screen.This gives them room to breathe and develop their own shapes. Fast growing plants can be space 5-6 feet apart or more and will usually full in within 5 years.

Provide the best growing environment for the fastest results. By this I mean amending the soil at planting time if your soil is not very fertile. Cover the soil with mulch and fertilize with compost or organic fertilizer. Watering deeply when needed especially during the first three years after planting when young plants put on a lot of growth. Formal hedges are fine for some gardens but think of all the added benefits you’ll get planting a mixed hedge.

Notes from the Garden / August

calibrachoaThey’re called the Dog Days of summer. You know those sultry days with the hottest summer temperatures. The Romans associated the hot weather between July 24th and August 24th with the star Sirius which they considered to be the “Dog Star” because it’s the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog). The Old Farmer’s Almanac uses slightly different dates but the Dog Days of summer are definitely here.

Recently I moved to Bonny Doon where gardening in the hot, sandy soil is very different than the shady clay I was used to. One thing I’ve noticed is the existing drip system has not been modified to allow for the growth of the plants. The emitters which were originally placed at the base of each plant are not even close to covering the current size of the root zone. The crown of the plant is getting overwatered with each cycle but the rest of the plant is bone dry. Time to add more emitters maybe even downsizing to half gallon ones and moving them away from the middle of the plant. No sense wasting water that’s not doing the plant much good.

As summer rolls along you may become more aware of the different microclimates in your garden. With the drier and hotter weather this year some of your plants that used to get along just fine might be showing signs of stress. Taking note of these changes in the performance of your plants is what makes for a more successful landscape. When the weather cools towards the end of September you will want to move or eliminate those plants that aren’t thriving. Be sure to keep a thick layer of mulch on the soil around your plants to conserve that precious water you do allocate to each of your irrigation zones.

The drought may be affecting our garden but it doesn’t have to stop us from being out in the garden. There are lots of things to do in the garden now. The joy of gardening can take many forms including adding wind chimes or adding a bird feeder or bird bath. Take time to groom the plants that need some cleanup. Many perennials benefit from a little haircut at this time of year to extend their blooming into the fall season. Lavenders especially will keep their compact shape by a hard pruning now. This forces new growth in the center so the plant doesn’t get woody.

Deadhead flowering annuals and perennials as often as you can. Annuals like marigolds, petunias and cosmos will stop blooming if you allow them to go to seed. The same is true of repeat blooming perennials like dahlia, scabiosa, marguerites and lantana.

These plants know they’re on this earth to reproduce. If they get a chance to set seed, the show’s over- they’ve raised their family. Try to remove fading flowers regularly and you’ll be amply rewarded.

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time in August or early September. All shrubs, especially rose_Icebergbroad-leaved evergreens such as rhododendron, pieris, camellia, hebe, need to calm down, stop growing and harden off to get ready for the winter cold. Some plants have already set next year’s buds.

Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in September and October. To keep them blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new rose to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves.

zinniaI grow mostly perennials but I have to admit that I’m a big zinnia fan. I remember one of my first gardens. Each year I would plant different sizes and colors of zinnias grouping them like a rainbow. Swallowtail butterflies loved them as much as I did. I spent many an afternoon, camera in hand, photographing them in action. Kids and adults alike enjoy the wildlife that’s attracted to the garden. Be sure to take time to smell the roses as they say.

Lawn Begone !!

salvia_nemorosa_East_FrieslandNow that everyone has received a summer water bill or two, it’s hitting home about the need to conserve. I recently received this email which might describe your situation also. “I let my grass die in this drought and now the area looks awful…Can you recommend a low water, deer proof ground cover?” Sound familiar?

Replacing a traditional lawn with ground covers or other solutions takes a bit of problem solving. Some water districts require you replace 50% of your lawn with hardscape and the other half with approved drought tolerant plants in order to qualify for a rebate. How do you go about designing this to fit your tastes and lifestyle?

If you want to replace the lawn with other ground covers and plants which are the best for our area? Do you want a low ground cover that you can walk on or would low-growing shrubs work for your area? There are also drought tolerant grasses that make good lawn subs. Here are some ideas that you can use in your own landscape.

Those of you with lawns fall into two groups.  Those that need a small recreational space for the kids and erigeron_glaucusthose who don’t. If you’ve been thinking that this is the year to go lawn-free here are some tips.

After removing the turf, start by looking at your pathways as they become focal points. A curving flagstone path laid down over gravel will allow excess water to soak into the earth rather than run off. Enlarge sitting areas to accommodate a table, chairs and a shade umbrella. Small crushed gravel is affordable and sounds great underfoot as you walk.

Layer plants on berms along your path, arranging low growing varieties like lavender, santolina, teucrium, beach strawberry, salvia nemorosa and creeping rosemary at the base and taller ones like salvia Hot Lips, ornamental grasses and ceanothus at the top if your area is sunny.  Shady gardeners can use tall plants like red-flowering currant with dicentra eximia at the base. Group plants to give them a sense of mass and use different textures and foliage colors for contrast. Make sure the plants you choose will stay the size you envision without much pruning.

Walk-on ground covers like dymondia, lippia, potentilla duchesnea strawberry and several kinds of thyme create the look of lawn but require a fraction of the irrigation.
erysimum_Apricot_Twist
One of my favorites is Elfin thyme. It doesn’t need mowing, edging, fertilizing or much irrigation. You can walk on it and it stays green all winter, shading into bronze tones when the weather cools. It even blooms in midsummer for several weeks. Bees will be attracted to it at this time. Thyme prefers sun and poor, sandy soil. Autumn is the best time to install from flats cut into 4″ plugs planted about a foot apart. It will fill in within 3 years. Plant them closer together if you’re impatient. You’ll love your new lavender-blooming “lawn”.

There are also Ca. native and prairie meadow grasses that you can walk on. They need little irrigation and even less mowing. Some can be planted from seed, others from plugs or sod. Good choices include Idaho, Calif. and red fescue, carex pansa, June grass and Hall’s bentgrass. Occasional shearing keeps them looking  best but they may be left alone with no mowing at all. Weed control is important during establishment but a healthy stand may be sustained with virtually no weeding after that.

Other meadow grasses to walk on include buffalo grass, catlin sedge and valley meadow scutellaria_suffrutescenssedge.  All grow 4-8″ tall and can be either left alone or mowed every so often.  They are tough enough for soccer games yet soft enough for bare feet.

Scotts Valley Water District has a good list of lawn substitute grasses and other water conserving plants.

If the idea of a flowering meadow right outside your door appeals to you, plant an eco-lawn, a mix of grasses and flowering plants.  Both low water use and low maintenance, an ecology lawn might include flowering perennials like English daisy, Roman chamomile and yarrow interspersed with native grasses.   Cut this style of lawn every 3 weeks in spring and once during the summer.  This is enough to keep the yarrows from developing woody stems while also allowing the perennials to flower between cuttings.

If you don’t need to walk on your groundcover, low-growing shrubs like baccharis, ceanothus maritimus, cistus salviifolius, grevillea lanigera, creeping mahonia, rosemany prostratus, rubus, manzanita, creeping snowberry and ribes viburnifolium work well and are easy to grow.

Don’t be a slave to your water guzzling grass lawn. You have lots of options to reduce or replace it.